Canada used to be a world leader in access to information, but has fallen behind because of complacency that has led to a “dysfunctional system,” a House of Commons committee heard on Wednesday.
“I think that we’ve slid,” said Mike Larsen, president of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, during a hearing of the access-to-information committee. Mr. Larsen was invited to testify as part of a continuing parliamentary study of the federal government’s access regime.
“We’ve been complacent,” he told the committee. “We’ve left some systems unchanged for too long and we’re no longer leading in the way that we could or should be, and we have the potential to do that.”
Access-to-information legislation allows people to file for access to internal government records. Requests are routinely used by businesses, researchers, journalists, lawyers and others. A federal request costs $5; provinces have their own freedom-of-information laws.
When the federal Access to Information Act was passed in the 1980s, it was a “progressive piece of legislation,” Mr. Larsen told The Globe and Mail after his testimony.
But Canada’s access regime has suffered “because no government has taken responsibility for meaningfully updating it to address these problems,” he said.
“In Canada, we are left with a stubborn inertia and, as a result, a dysfunctional system.”
Mr. Larsen and other advocates also raised concerns about how the study has been administered so far, and opened his testimony by taking the committee to task for the limited time potential witnesses had been given to prepare their testimony.
Kukpi7 Judy Wilson of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs told The Globe that her invitation to testify came just two days ago, and that the “extremely narrow timeframe” she was given to prepare was “indicative of the government’s approach to engagement with First Nations.”
Dean Beeby, a retired journalist and frequent user of access-to-information legislation, said in an interview that the way the committee has scheduled hearings has undermined his faith in the process.
Mr. Beeby was e-mailed last week with a request to testify, but said he was given less than two hours to respond. He did not reply on time, and is not currently slated to be a witness at future meetings.
When the Access to Information Act was amended in 2019 under Bill C-58, the changes required two reviews of the law and policies every five years: A ministerial review by the government, conducted by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, and a review via parliamentary committee. But the committee’s current study of access to information is not part of that review.
“They weren’t aware of it,” Mr. Beeby said. “Bill C-58 promised a very full review from a parliamentary committee. We’re not getting that. We’re getting some slapdash, reduced study. It really bothers me because that leaves the only full study in the hands of the government.”
John Brassard, the Conservative MP who chairs the committee, told The Globe that he did not see this study as an “entire review based on the legislation,” since it came about as the result of a committee motion in May.
Mr. Brassard said they are trying to accommodate all speakers on the list, and that he understood that some groups were frustrated. “It’s not really an exact science, because we have those meetings, we have witnesses,” he said. “Some can come, some can’t, some come at a later date – that’s how it works.”
According to Mr. Brassard, two more meetings are scheduled for early December, and he said he hopes to deliver a final report to Parliament some time in mid-February or March.
At the hearing on Wednesday, each speaker took turns raising a litany of frustrations regarding the federal government’s access regime.
Kukpi7 Wilson explained that Indigenous groups are often required to file access-to-information requests to obtain documentation from the government when making treaty or legal claims against the Crown.
“It’s an ongoing conflict of interest,” she said, “because a lot of the information that we’re asking for is in regards to Canada’s unlawful taking of our lands, our resources and causing violations or breaches.”
Andrew Koltun, an immigration lawyer speaking on behalf of the Canadian Immigration Lawyers Association, told the committee that access requests have become a major friction point in the immigration process.
Roughly three-quarters of access requests made to the federal government are to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and the overwhelming majority of those requests is by immigration applicants seeking information that will help them during their application process.
Alan Barnes, who leads the Canadian Foreign Intelligence History Project at Carleton University, spoke about the difficulty faced by researchers trying to access historical records.
“Canadians deserve a sound understanding of their history,” Mr. Barnes said. “Proper access to historical records is vital to such an understanding, but these records are currently being kept hidden by an act of Parliament so restrictive that researchers cannot do their work.”
Help The Globe and Mail investigate Canada’s broken freedom-of-information regimes. We’re looking to speak with people who use and interact with the system at all levels of government. Are you a current or former FOI analyst? A public servant? A citizen, academic, researcher or advocate who has filed requests? Are you a current or former appeals adjudicator? A lawyer with experience in this area of law? We want to talk to you. You can get in touch with us at email@example.com.